Culture is everything we do (and it can be an excuse too)

I walked briskly on the busy morning of Luxembourg central station area. People moved around in streams: students, businessmen (and women), important-looking people in suits and even beggars. Some hopped to the bus and some got off. Some read the free newspaper and some filled the patisseries for a breakfast. These are perhaps the morning routine that people do. Routine, as it is repeatedly done so that people don’t need to think much about doing this everyday. And for a newcomer like myself, I couldn't help but to be aware to what goes on my surroundings. Everything is new and therefore it struck my attention to it. I was very much aware to the bad smell of the piss when passing through the renovated building, I was very aware of the beggars on certain places, and I was aware to the fast walking of the people around me. To blend into this routine feels like I am part of the Luxembourger society (and slowly I think less and less about my surroundings, I began to take them for granted). This is how it is done here.

One morning in Luxembourg-Gare

The scenery of one morning is quite different in Luxembourg than it would be in Indonesia. Instead of people walking, in Indonesia there would be streams of darting motorcycles and cars and buses rumbling in the traffic. And if I were working in Indonesia at one morning, I would be one among those crowds too. Most probably riding a motorcycle to go to work. It would be weird if I walk to my workplace. Although there is nothing wrong about it, but if I tell my colleague that I walked to the workplace they would be quite amazed that I have done so. It is most likely that I will do what most people do. That is how it is done there.

The way it is done, or the culture, as some people call it. Different places have different cultures and if comparing between countries seems to be far-stretched (because it is obvious anyway that different country has different culture), then we can look into smaller examples. People that work in the bank have different ways of doing things from those in the manufacturing company. Within the manufacturing company, people in marketing do things differently from those in operations, and so on. The work is different, that is obvious, and how people interact around that work is also different. Even people in the same place with the same work can have different ways of doings.

To give a little scholarly reference, organizational culture is manifested in dress norms, stories people tell about what goes on, rituals, tasks, jargon, and jokes only understood by insiders (Martin, 1992). So culture becomes a word that explains everything. How I speak, how I eat, how I greet, all these cannot be something that is outside of culture. I live in a certain way that I learnt from my surroundings how to think, act, and react according to the place of living. So I agree with Alvesson and Sandberg (2014) that to survive in different place of living, or habitat, it demands different set of attitudes, or habits, or habitus. And these “ways of doing things” are again referring to culture.

It is as if when people say “culture” it is meant to be taken for granted. People ought to swallow it with no question mark.

When the word “culture” is brought up to explain something, it usually imposes a notion that no further question is required. It is as if when people say “culture” it is meant to be taken for granted. People ought to swallow it with no question mark. “Why some people do it this way and some others do it that way?”, one may ask. And the answer is, “Because they have different cultures.” This answer actually doesn’t lead us anywhere. This is like saying, “They are different because they are just different.” It doesn’t answer anything and it inhibits our critical thinking.

In organizational settings, culture often being regarded as what leads to high performance. Culture is claimed “to spur innovation”, “as the single most important attribute to a successful company”, and “as one of four primary management practices to sustain superior performance.” These are the voices that you might hear when business people explain high performance. In other words, if you want to improve your organization, it has something to do with culture. What if my organization is performing poorly? Then it must be caused by the culture, too. Again, culture is used (as an excuse) to explain everything.

However, as a researcher in this field, I am not interested in the superiority of culture in explaining performance. Nor do I am interested in how we can change culture. Instead, I am interested in how different people interact to each other through culture. Since culture is almost everything we do, most of the time it is ambiguous, unclear, and people cope with it in different ways. Conflict, disagreement, friction, misunderstanding, and suppression are among those that caused by differences of cultures. Whereas agreement, synergy, empowerment, understanding, and harmony are prevalent when the cultures are integrated. It is the meaning in the society (organization) that I am curious of. Nonetheless, my worry is that the more I dig into culture, the more I will lose its meaning. Just like a water particle that consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom: the deeper we get into something we tend to see something completely different. The path is risky. But perhaps it can take me closer to the truth.